This is the first of a five-part Sunday series examining the impact of sports on American
society and vice versa.
On a Saturday evening in early December 1999, while a close friend was celebrating newly minted matrimony, John Young was huddled in a bathroom over a portable television.
If that sounds odd, you’re probably not a college football fan.
On that day, Alabama was on its way to a 34-7 win over Florida in the Southeastern Conference Championship game, and Young, an attorney from Hoover, Ala., wasn’t about to let a wedding keep him away from witnessing the Crimson Tide’s first SEC title in seven years. Neither were the groomsmen and the preacher that joined him in the men’s room to keep tabs on the game.
To hear Young tell it, it’s surprising he attended the ceremony at all.
"If you plan your wedding on a Tennessee-Alabama or Auburn-Alabama game day, be prepared to have an empty church," Young said. "Most people know this and won’t get married in the fall, and if they do, it will be on Alabama’s off week.
"I’ve missed my share of weddings, including some close friends, because they were dumb enough to have it during an Alabama game."
Such is life in the South.
Whether its football, baseball, golf or NASCAR, sports have long played an integral part in American culture. For many families, football is as much a part of Thanksgiving traditions as turkey and dressing, vacations are planned around youth baseball All-Star season, and trips to Talladega are an annual event.
But in the South, where 90,000-seat stadiums arise like temples in towns of 10,000, college football is, quite simply, king.
It’s a scene that plays out regularly in the fall. Masses clad in team colors descend on college campuses to join in the ritual of cheering on their favorite school in a mass of excess that includes tailgate parties, lavish recreational vehicles and oversized flags with the school crest flying as far as the eye can see.
"There’s just something majestic about it, said Gainesville native and Ole Miss graduate Tharpe Ward. "I grew up on college football and I just love the sport, tailgating, and everything that goes with it."
The reasons most fans give for throwing themselves into college football revolve around the fact that its an escape from day-to-day pressures of the real world, while getting to act like a 21-year-old again at the place where they once studied.
Fans spend big money to get all the necessities for the optimum game day experience: grills, satellite dishes, generators, big screen televisions and all the home decor to bring the best memories of the school’s football past within arms reach in the form or pictures and paintings. Time is prioritized with football at the top of the list. Weddings, birthday parties and vacations come secondary to making it on campus for the big games.
A way of life
College football in the South is primarily divided into two major conferences — the SEC and the Atlantic Coast Conference. Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee and LSU are some of the most history-rich schools in the SEC. The ACC is home to Georgia Tech, Florida State, Clemson, Virginia Tech, Miami and other schools stretching all the way up the east coast to Boston College. Historically, the SEC has some of the richest history and has claimed more national titles than any other conference (16). The SEC collectively claims some of the nation’s largest stadiums, and all are sold out every Saturday, almost without exception.
With such history and staunch fan support, one could only wonder what it would be like to take in a game at each one of the conference’s stadiums. Enter Clay Travis.
In 2006, Travis, a Vanderbilt law school graduate and lifelong Tennessee fan, journeyed out on the road to take in a game at each SEC stadium as the subject of his book ‘Dixieland Delight.’
"I’d never heard of anyone going to all 12 stadiums in one season," Travis said in a phone interview. "What I found is that sometimes the culture and surroundings of college football, especially in the South, are sometimes more important than the game itself."
In the book, Travis managed to poke some innocent fun at the different fan bases, such as pointing out Georgia fans and their affinity for red pants on game day, the abundance of the ‘Bama Bangs’ hairstyle, and the simple pleasures associated with ringing a cowbell during a Mississippi State home game. However, through his travels he came to some general conclusions about football in the South and why it’s so important to our way of life.
"College football in the south is passed down from generation to generation," Travis said. "It’s something that really doesn’t exist in many other places.
"I think it has to do with the regional nature, and that being from the state your from really matters. It’s the tribal nature of southerners."
Dr. Billy Hawkins, a University of Georgia sports sociologist has noticed a similar phenomenon.
Through his research, Hawkins has found that college football, which originally found its backbone in a military background with coaches that instilled discipline and loyalty above all, found an eager audience with blue-collar southerners.
"One thing I’ve noticed in my 14 years at Georgia is that college football is something that transcends generations with the continuity it provides and the family tradition that goes along with the sport," Hawkins said.
Sports at the highest levels also have a far-reaching impact on American society as a whole, Hawkins said.
"Sports in general have such a huge emphasis because of the monetary demand for sports in our entire society," Hawkins said.
The rights to broadcast professional sports and the right to advertise on those broadcasts fetch top dollar in the U.S, college football included.
According to figures presented by Travis, SEC total football revenue for the 2005 season hit just in excess of $350 million. Those funds are largely a result of ticket sales and officially licensed merchandise. To put the SEC’s earnings into context, its total revenue was $73 million more than brought in by the Big 10 Conference, which includes schools in the midwest and stretching into the northeast.
The most lucrative television contracts include Notre Dame’s current contract with NBC that is worth $9 million annually. Networks like ESPN, CBS, ABC and NBC all battle to carry the top games each week during the season, and networks such as The Big 10 Network have also popped up in recent years with contracts to cover games in their specific conference.
With that kind of money up for grabs, schools are willing to do what’s necessary to ensure they field top-flight teams, including shelling out multi-million dollar contracts to coaches and constructing state-of-the-art facilities to lure in and cater to elite athletes.
"The SEC is the richest conference in the nation," Hawkins said. "Most of the schools are actually operating entirely on generated revenue.
"The game of college football is a product centered around the student athlete," he added. "And premium athletes make for a premium product."
Really not that different
Naturally, with the financial and emotional investment that people put into college football, passionate rivalries are bound to surface. It is expected for Georgia fans to look down their noses at Georgia Tech fans, and for Alabama fans to fervently hate Tennessee, if for no other reason than that they pledge allegiance to the group of players on the opposite sideline.
In the introduction to his national bestseller, "Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer," in which he spends an entire season submerged in the tailgating culture and traveling from one Alabama game to the next, Warren St. John touches on this very mindset.
"Crying one’s self to sleep over the failure of a group of people you’ve never met to defeat another group of people against whom you have no legitimate quarrel — in a game you don’t play, no less — is not rational."
But there’s seemingly little room for rationality in the mind of the fan.
Even with the partisan nature of the sport, Travis feels like most college football fans have more in common than they tend to admit.
"One thing that really stuck out to me was that there is an awful lot of pride among the fans but they are usually very friendly people," he said. "I met a lot of people in bars and restaurants, and I learned that most fan bases really aren’t that different."
Still, with each season the cycle repeats itself. Fans flock to their respective school hoping for a big win. But most of all they want to tap into that vibe that goes with being a football fan in the South. They yearn for the familiar sights and sounds of a Saturday afternoon in Athens — or Oxford, Clemson, Tuscaloosa, etc. They bring comfort, joy and occasionally heartache. Times past are remembered and and the opportunity to create new memories are relished. Life, if need be, can be but on hold for a few hours, replaced by fight songs and touchdowns.
The colors on the back and the particular traditions may vary, but from town to town, the passion of the fan is the same.
As Travis wrote in his book, "People face serious decisions at very important jobs, life-threatening illness, and bone-crushing stress yet, each weekend in the fall, revert to the rhythms of their preadolescent life."